When I was teaching in China there was an old saying I often heard, “柴 米 油 盐 酱 醋 茶 (Chái mǐ yóu yán jiàng cù chá)” or “Firewood, rice, oil, salt, sauce, vinegar and tea”–these are considered the Seven Necessities that are needed each day for one to live at a minimum, civilized level. I taught in the city and often visited the countryside, so I saw this maxim in daily use. Though many in China use coal stoves, there are also a goodly number of people, at least in the countryside, that gather sticks and dried wood to burn for cooking their meals. The 7 Necessities was a concept that interested me, not only as part of the culture within which I lived, but also as someone who loves to cook! The Chinese can be extraordinarily efficient in their thinking, as illustrated by this list, so it got me thinking about the items it was impossible to do without in my own kitchen. I’d like to examine this concept and take it apart, then show you my own list!
- 1. Firewood: Though many people in the city now use gas stoves or coal-burning stoves, many folks in the country still send the kids out to gather sticks and dried grass to burn for cooking.
- 2. Rice: Most people believe that the Chinese eat rice every day, but in the northern part of the country, where much of the wheat, millet and corn is grown, noodles and steamed breads are just as popular.
- 3. Oil: Peanut, sesame and/or corn oil is what is mostly used for making stir-fries of vegetables or fried rice, especially sesame oil, which gives a distinctive flavor to Chinese dishes.
- 4. Salt: The universal flavoring and preservative; in China this is used for eggs, the famous Yunnan hams, pickled vegetables, and of course, for all cooking.
- 5. Sauce: This is usually soy sauce, or, down south, oyster sauce; two other necessities for most kitchens in China are fish sauce (made from fermented fish) and chili sauce. It is interesting to note that while American restaurant tables usually carry salt, pepper and ketchup, the go-to items in most Chinese restaurants are chili sauce (or chili pepper flakes in oil, also called ‘hot chili oil’), soy sauce and rice vinegar. I never noticed any of the hot Chinese mustard you see in Chinese restaurants here (though it may be because I lived in the north, in Beijing, and most restaurants in the U.S. serve southern Chinese, or Cantonese, food, which does use hot mustard).
- 6. Vinegar: Rice vinegar is used in any number of ways, such as preserving eggs or vegetables, in soups, with meat sauces and in salads (usually a mix of blanched vegetables, cold noodles and/or nuts–nothing like what we call ‘salad’ here).
- 7. Tea: Does this need any explanation? The use of the leaves of camellia sinensis originated in China and spread outwards to India & Europe through the machinations of the British East India Company. It is used medicinally in China, as well as a daily drink. Black tea (also called ‘orange pekoe’, referring to the golden orange color of oxidized leaves), which we mostly drink in the West, is made from fully fermented/oxidized tea leaves, Oolong tea comes from partially fermented/oxidized tea leaves and green tea is created from dried tea leaves which have never been allowed to oxidize (turn black)–the amazing thing is, all three varieties come from the same plant!
What would the 7 Necessities be in my own kitchen? Speaking as one who loves Chinese culture and food, I’d have to include tea, rice and soy sauce on my list as well. I rarely use oil because of the fat content, though I have a touch of sesame oil in most of my Chinese dishes; I use butter spray, which gives plenty of flavor without all the fat content and high calories. Salt is a definite item that must be included–gotta have this basic seasoning around. For me, another would be garlic-fresh, minced, powdered-all three forms are usually present in my kitchen. Eggs would be another must-have: boiled, poached, baked, fried, scrambled–an excellent, healthy source of protein, relatively low in fat, and absolutely versatile! Some kind of fruit, such as bananas or oranges or mangoes (according to the season) would be the last Necessity for me-or lemon juice, since I drink it every day for health, as well as because of the taste. How about yourself? What 7 essentials must you have in your kitchen to call it really ‘yours’–that you just cannot do without? Please comment below! I’d love to hear from you!